While political observers wait to see whether President-elect Donald Trump will fulfill his promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington, Anaheim's new council majority is ready to do something similar in Orange County's largest city—flush the outsized influence of the Walt Disney Co. and other business boosters from City Hall.
Most people here love the Happiest Place on Earth and respect Disney's deep roots in Orange County. There's no questioning the benefits the company brings the county's largest city. But what's good for Disney isn't always good for Anaheim. Its 350,000 residents have priorities that aren't centered in the Resort District, and until now, it's been hard to get them heard.
In the run-up to the Nov. 8 election, "the parent company of Disneyland [funneled] more than $900,000 into a complicated network of groups supporting Disney-friendly candidates in four council races and attacking their opponents," according to a VoiceofOC analysis, which noted Disney broke its spending record. A Disney spokesperson told the publication that the political action committees that receive funding are involved in many Orange County races and not just those in Anaheim.
But an unusual coalition loyal to Republican Mayor Tom Tait won the day. Conservative Republican Denise Barnes won District 1 over Disney-backed candidate Steve Chavez Lodge. Progressive Democrat Jose Moreno won District 3 over Disney-backed incumbent Jordan Brandman. Disney candidates, incumbent Lucille Kring and newcomer Stephen Faessell, won District 4 and District 5 over Tait-backed candidates, but Tait now has a majority. (Incumbent James Vanderbilt also is an ally.)
The reason for the big spending?
The local business community is committed to a continuing train of resort subsidies. Subsidies for myriad hotel deals top a half-billion dollars. There was the ARTIC train stop that critics call the $185 million "train station to nowhere." The council tried to lease the city-owned Angels parking lot for $1 a year to the ballclub, which would have been quite a giveaway for a $225-million asset. It wanted to build the costliest per-mile streetcar system in the nation's history. And then there's the excessively pricey convention center expansion.
The catalyst for electoral change came in 2014, after the city settled a voting-rights lawsuit by agreeing to place two charter amendments on the ballot. One changed the city's at-large election system to a system of districts. The other expanded the council from four seats (plus the mayor) to six seats. All of the sudden, council candidates no longer needed a fortune to have a shot at winning.
"It's the first time we've been elected by district," Tait told me. "It brought City Hall closer to the people and the neighborhoods. We're fortunate to have the Resort District, but the purpose of the city is to serve the people." In at-large races, each council candidate has to run a citywide race. That takes a lot of money, so organized groups—developers, labor unions, etc.—have excessive influence. And a bigger council is better than a smaller one, because each member represents fewer people and should be more accessible to residents.
"You don't have to really court anyone except the voter," newly elected Councilman Jose Moreno told me. He ran in 2014 while the city still had an at-large system, and said the difference was night and day. Tait told him, "You don't need a lot of money. You just need enough money." Indeed, Moreno estimates the Tait slate was outspent by overwhelming margins, yet managed to grab two of the four seats.
"Nobody likes crony capitalism, except for the people who profit from it or get invited to the VIP events," he said. Despite the wide-ranging ideologies on the Tait team, Moreno said they all agree on core issues: "It's really a clean, open-government platform."
Unions backed the Disney candidates, of course. The crony capitalist approach is all about bringing Big Labor and Big Business together to divvy up the taxpayers' spoils. It's been a long slide for the city. In 2006, Anaheim touted itself as a "freedom friendly" city that reduced fees, deregulated land uses in some areas and focused on treating all businesses—not just big political players—in a fair manner.
Its main advocates were then-Mayor Curt Pringle and Tait. Since then, the two have had a falling out, with Tait still championing the same, ennobling ideas. Pringle, now a lobbyist, is seen by some reformers as the Darth-Vader-like presence on the deal-making side of things. Tait still understands the huge chasm between being "pro-business" and "pro-freedom." Giving privileges to specific businesses certainly is pro-business, but being pro-freedom is about letting all businesses compete fairly.
Moreno's final victory was by a few dozen votes, so we'll see if such a slim majority can drain Anaheim's swamp, or at least shift power from Space Mountain to Anaheim's real-world neighborhoods. Time will tell, but I suspect that, with an expanded council and district elections, the old, fetid way of doing business is history.